Mental health in the workplace

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One in four people in the UK will experience a problem with their mental health *. “Problem with mental health” is a vague description, and indeed this is partly why it can be so hard to spot – particularly in the workplace.

With roughly 32 million people currently employed in the UK**, this represents a potential 8 million people currently working a full-time job whilst experiencing what might be the biggest struggle they’ve ever faced. This is why it’s so important for staff members to be know how they can support those affected. To do that, they need to understand what mental health issues are and how they can manifest themselves.

Understanding mental health is particularly important for managers – those charged with supporting their colleagues and ensuring they’re able to do their job comfortably and to their best ability.


What’s the situation?

We recently found that 45% of managers in the UK have not been trained to spot mental health issues in colleagues. With such a potentially high number of workers experiencing these issues, this represents a striking number of employees suffering in silence, unable to access the support they deserve. It also highlights how the UK still falls short of championing one of the most prevalent issues of today.

There are legal requirements a company must comply with regarding mental health in the workplace, but they are quite broad.

Clare Porciani, Senior Manager HR Operations UK & Ireland at Viking, explains that “the Health and Safety at Work Act places a legal duty on employers to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of employees. This doesn’t just mean creating filing cabinets full to the brim with legal documents and policies – although one of HR’s primary goals is making sure we have an environment free from any risks to physical health. It also means cultivating a culture and working practices that are not detrimental to mental health.

“Trouble is, this might not, in practice, be specific enough to prevent managers such as those in our survey slipping through the net and ending up with no formal mental health training.”

This becomes especially concerning when viewed alongside our finding that 65% of UK managers have been approached regarding issues relating to mental health, stress or anxiety. This really goes to show how important the ability to deal with such issues is, given their frequency.

Moreover, 67% of managers in the UK felt that there was a stigma around stress, anxiety and other issues with mental health in the workplace. Tom Oxley, a mental health strategist who runs Bamboo Mental Health, commented “Stigma comes from different places. A lot comes from us – our backgrounds, of families and our inherited manager attitudes. It can also come from employer culture – one that is target-obsessed, too-macho-for-emotions or downright ignorant. We’ve a long way to go.”

This perception highlights just how hard it must be to ask for help from a manager – particularly if you suspect they may be judging you negatively, or that by revealing your problems you may be marked out as ‘weak’.

So, what can be done?


The first step is education. The more the workforce understands about mental health problems in their many varied forms, the less stigmatised they become.

Understanding also means that spotting symptoms will become easier, and that’s really key for managers to help support a struggling colleague. For example, when it comes to stress, Clare Porciani advises: “Firstly, all managers need to understand what stress is. This means understanding the physical and psychological mechanics of stress, how to spot signs of stress and what to do support a team member who is suffering from stress.”

On the topic of management training, Tom Oxley said “I’m surprised that 55% have been trained. Some training focuses on the conditions which may not be very useful. I think it’s better to be trained in the signs and supportive conversations.”

However, this doesn’t need to apply only to managers. Wider understanding from all parties can only lead to increased acceptance and, through this, more easily accessed support.


The second step is involvement, and by that we mean establishing and maintaining a rapport with colleagues and making time for regular catch ups and one-on-one time. Coupling a climate of understanding with time spent engaging with the colleague and how they feel about work and whether they are experiencing any struggles is a great start in encouraging support instead of breeding stigma.

“Early intervention is key, so it’s really important that managers are having regular conversations with their colleagues, as well as looking for changes in behaviour.

“Managers also need training on what they can do to proactively prevent stress in the workplace. An understanding of the HSE standards can be a good place to start, where managers can audit their area of the business for potential risks.”

For Tom Oxley, the solution is in involvement, “The workplace alone probably can’t eliminate the stigma altogether. But we can create a culture of support. Leaders need to talk about mental health, giving their hierarchy permission to discuss the topic. Managers need to be trained. HR needs great processes. People need a range of support, from Employee Assistance to Employee Insurance. And we need more positive stories of how we can manage our work when the stresses of life give us a kicking.”

A developing future

Clare Porciani, Senior Manager HR Operations UK & Ireland at Viking, says: “As with many issues relating to how we understand one another, and how this understanding affects our working lives, there’s always more that can be done.

“We’ve come a long way – even in the last decade – but there’s still work to be done if we are to de-stigmatise mental health issues within the workplace. The first step really is creating a better understanding of such issues within the workforce, as this will not only better equip managers with the skills they need to spot and support any problems, but also enable any colleague to keep a more sympathetic eye out for their co-workers.”

The work of charities such as Mind, as well as awareness days such as World Mental Health Day (10th October 2018) and Mental Health Awareness Week (14 – 20th May), are doing great work towards this cause, but the onus is also on employers to help make the working world a more supportive and productive place.